WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Jim DeMint are headed for a showdown vote on earmarks next week that's already splitting Republicans and will be the first post-election test of tea party lawmakers' ability to deliver on their hard-line campaign pledges.
DeMint, a South Carolina Republican elected to his second term last week, said he'll force an internal vote among incoming GOP senators Tuesday on freezing all requests for spending earmarks.
DeMint sent a letter to Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, saying he'll propose an internal policy change banning earmarked spending requests when incoming GOP senators meet Tuesday to elect their leaders and craft party rules.
The letter was signed by eight incumbent senators — and by the five incoming senators who won election last week with financial backing from DeMint and strong support from tea party activists.
The language in the proposed resolution is identical to an earmark moratorium adopted last year by House Republicans.
"Resolved, that it is the policy of the Republican Conference that no member shall request a congressionally directed spending item, limited tax benefit or limited tariff benefit," the resolution says.
DeMint helped turn earmarks into a national political issue in December 2006 when he blocked a massive appropriations bill for weeks until Senate leaders removed 10,000 earmarks for local projects totaling $17 billion.
"Republicans in the House and Senate have an opportunity to stand against the earmark favor factory next week and unite to fight for an end to pork barrel spending for the entire Congress," Wesley Denton, DeMint's spokesman, said Wednesday. "This is an important issue for voters in the last election, and we're hopeful it will pass."
DeMint's rock-ribbed opposition to government spending has earned him a national following among conservative activists, who helped him raise more than $5 million to contribute to likeminded Senate candidates.
McConnell, Kentucky's senior senator, and DeMint have repeatedly butted heads as the South Carolinian has forced senators to take difficult votes on spending measures and controversial policy matters.
McConnell has responded coolly to the DeMint earmark ban.
He said a Republican-only earmark ban would give Democratic senators broader latitude to channel money to pet projects.
"The problem is, it doesn't save any money," McConnell told CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday. "What we really need to do is to concentrate on reducing spending and reducing debt. And this (earmark) debate doesn't save any money, which is why it is kind of exasperating to some of us who really want to cut spending."
However, he acknowledged that the issue "has generated some level of controversy within our (GOP) conference."
Among the eight incumbent senators who'd signed onto the Senate Republican earmark freeze by Wednesday evening, only two have requested no such targeted funds since 2008 — DeMint and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
The other ban backers have sought varying amounts of earmarks: Richard Burr of North Carolina, $32.3 million; Jeff Sessions of Alabama, $24.2 million; John Cornyn of Texas, $21.9 million; Mike Enzi of Wyoming, $21.8 million; John Ensign of Nevada, $12.4 million; and Bob Corker of Tennessee, $10.3 million.
(Lesley Clark contributed to this article.)
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